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Culture —– Water (Agua): Don’t Drink it! Especially Cold!

by Brandi

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May 26th, 2009

If are planning to travel to or stay in Latin America, do not drink the water out of the tap! The water usually isn’t potable because they don’t use the same type of water treatment plants as they do in the United States. If you accidentally drink the water out of the tap, you may get what many people, over the ages, have affectionately called “Montezuma’s revenge”. Along with other symptoms, this condition will usually include many unwanted trips to the restroom.

Changing the topic a little, I want to share a cultural difference that I still don’t entirely understand and even now find interesting every time I think about it. In the United States, we drink cold water and cold drinks all the time. We drink cold drinks during the day, at night, and during meals. If you happen pick up fast food late at night, even if it is cold outside, and you order a water or soda, they always put ice in it. (International blog readers, please let me know if this is done in your region of the world.)

Latin American’s have a very different mentality with regard to cold drinks. The first time I asked for ice to put in my cold drink late at night in Latin America, everyone gasped. Everyone looked at me with shock and horror as if I were about to voluntarily throw myself off a large cliff. I asked them, “What is wrong with putting ice in my drink?” They said to me, “You can’t drink ice at night, if you do, you’ll be sick in the morning.” I thought they were joking with me and said, “When I lived in the United States., I drank cold drinks with ice at night all the time.” They all looked at me in disbelief and shock, like they wondered how I was still alive.

I was sad to find out the the no-ice-in-drinks thing was not just at night. Often, I would go to people’s homes in the summer for lunch in 100° weather with no air conditioning, and they would always serve hot soup and a luke-warm drink. I thought I would shrivel up and die without something cold in such hot weather. But, lucky for me, I’m still alive and able to write our “lleno de emoción” Spanish newsletter.

Now getting back to drinking ice at night — every so often, I would wake up in the morning with a sick stomach. If I told the family that I ate breakfast with that morning that I had a sick stomach, they would always ask me in an accusing tone, if I had ice in my drink the night before. If I told them I did have ice the night before, they would say “Ah Hah! We told you so, but you don’t listen!!! — Just don’t drink any more drinks with ice at night and you’ll be okay.”

As I remember my experience with ice in Latin America and try to solve the mystery of that cultural difference, the only solution I can come up with is since they never drink icy drinks at night, their stomachs are probably not be used to it.

Now for the moral of this week’s story: If you want to drink cold drinks with ice at night in a pueblo (small city) in Latin America, you’d better hide it or drink it where nobody will see you. Otherwise you can cause quite an uproar and a lot of concern and worries for your health (they will probably think you’re crazy too). Actually, come to think of it, if you are a person who really needs some attention, go ahead and put ice in your drink.

If any of you have had experiences with drinking icy cold drinks at night, I would love to hear from you.

Sneak Peak at Next Week: Cultural Hand Gestures

¡Que tengan una buena semana! (Have a great week!)
David S. Clark — President / Director

Click here to learn Spanish.

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5 Responses

  1. RedMoul says:

    I so understand, in last paragraph just whole salt and is stated

  2. Chris says:

    Hello Dave
    If you know you can’t drink the water in a country then it’s good idea not to have ice in your drinks.
    Ice is usually only the non-potable water in frozen form, unless it was boiled before freezing.
    It may not be possible to find out if the water had been boiled, and even if it had, you can never be sure that it was done sufficiently.
    As a former suffered of Bali Belly, Thai Tummy, Chinese Chunders and Hong Kong Horrors, all of which were absolutely debilitating and not much fun on a holiday, my tip is to always drink liquids which have been processed, such as beer, wine or imported bottled soft drinks.

    • Wy says:

      I agree with Chris. If you can’t drink the water, then it follows that you can’t eat the ice, unless somehow the water is getting filtered before it’s frozen, or if the ice is imported, which I doubt. People therefore think that the ice is making them sick because it’s cold, when in fact they are consuming bad water that was frozen.

  3. Manjiri says:

    Hi Dave,
    I am from Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), India. I can identify with all these cultural diferences from US and Latin America as India is much like Latin America, as far as culture and lifestyle is concerned.
    So, about this ice in your drink thing- it is true that if you have ice in extremely hot and humid weather, with spicy diet, it can lead to stomach upsets verrry easily. Even here in India we do not normally have ice in water;in drinks, maybe but definately not in water that is served outside our home.
    Though chilled water is common in small restos too, the ice used there is really of doubtful quality, thus steer clear of unboiled water.
    Also, like Chris (above) says, if the locals tell you something its the best to go by their advice, its not a question of gusto but your health.
    Hence, no ice is safest – that is what the locals must have concluded from many trials to cool off in the roasting sun!!
    Another point-Apart from their hospitable suggestions, maybe most of the people of the small towns where you have been to are too poor to afford a freezer, or something like that? So to ask for ice in each glass of water you drink may sound snobbish..? Just a thought, coz i have never been to Latin America ever…


  4. Linda says:


    I come from a country in South America and what you said about the cold drinks is true. I cannot tolerate cold drinks especially with ice; I would totally get a sore throat or get sick. I live in USA now and my body cannot still get adjusted to cold drinks. In my country, we do not have drinks with ice;except in Summer. We drink most of the time room temperatures drinks or hot drinks , such as tea. So, when I came to USA, I noticed that almost everybody has drinks with ice. I do not exactly why I cannot tolerate cold drinks, but anytime I eat out I order my drinks with no ice.

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